Work Differently to Facilitate a Breakthrough

The history of art is a history of artistic breakthroughs. Consider these significant achievements:

  •  Scientific perspective
  •  Oil painting, and then acrylics
  •  Abstraction (Gasp! Art doesn’t have to be a window on the world?)
  •  Photography
  •  Collage (Huh? Glue paper on top of paper??)
  •  Constructed sculpture (rather than carved or modeled)
Abstract painting by Deborah Webster - in blues
©Deborah Webster, Bubbly. Mixed media, 36 x 36 inches.

I don't have to convince you of how good it feels to have those artistic breakthroughs.

But there are breakthroughs in other areas of your life that will also contribute to your success. Breakthroughs in mindset, technology adaptation, systems, and a host of business challenges.

What Needs to Break?

The word breakthrough implies that something has to be destroyed so that something new can be created.

The dictionary defines a breakthrough as …

     … any significant or sudden advance, development, achievement, or increase, as in scientific knowledge or diplomacy, that removes a barrier to progress.

I might emphasize these words. 



removes a barrier

If you are looking for a breakthrough in your art-making, your art career, or in your life, consider these possibilities:

  • Do you need to break any bad habits that prevent progress?
  • Do you need to break patterns of action (or inaction) that aren’t serving you?
  • Do you need to break clean from any negativity you’re feeling about yourself, resentment toward others, or pessimism about your future so that you wake up each day happy to be an artist and to be alive?
Abstract painting by Arianna Lin
©Arianna Lin, Intimation of Landscape. Oil on paper, 30 x 22 inches.

Be Open to Change

Breakthroughs are earned, but they rarely happen when you’re looking for them.

It's impossible to time your breakthrough: I think I'll have a breakthrough tomorrow. If only it were that easy.

Though it might be possible to sense one ahead: I feel like I'm working on something big. I'm not sure what it is yet, but I'm excited about the prospects.

Fine art print, collagraph and monotype, of a hand with 4 fish and a net by Kathleen Piercefield
©Kathleen Piercefield, Give a man a fish / teach a man to fish. Collagraph and monotype, 16.5 x 23 inches.

Here are a number of ways to adjust your approach to work in order to facilitate a breakthrough.

6 Ways to Expedite Your Breakthrough

1. Create a problem to solve. Any problem.

Art is advanced when problems are solved, like how to depict three-dimensionality on a two-dimensional surface.

Set up a problem for your art or business.

How can I balance the composition?

How can I make this with less expensive materials? How can I sell more with less ad spend?

How can I convey this or that emotion?

How can I enjoy interacting on social media more?

Faith Ringgold was researching shipping options for her paintings when she realized that if she just painted on fabric, without the support, she could roll it up and easily ship it in a tube.

Monochromatic painting of a sewer by Brad Blackman
©Brad Blackman, Sewer I. Oil on canvas, 18 x 20 inches.

2. Challenge yourself.

There’s very little motivation in the daily grind: post to instagram, update your inventory, send a newsletter, write a blog post, or work in the studio.

If you’re not careful, you can get stuck checking off menial tasks without doing something extraordinary for your art and for yourself. 

Pick a color or a new material that you’ve been avoiding and figure out how to use it in a way that is pleasing.

This is why the Painting a Day phenomenon or 100-day challenges have caught on.

Contrary to the notion that you need absolute freedom to make art, there is ample evidence that creativity thrives within defined parameters.

3. Talk to people about your ideas.

If you are, as I am, a verbal processor, you will find it useful to discuss ideas with others.

Maybe you set up conversations with other artists, as we facilitate in the Art Biz Connection community.

Or perhaps you find inspiration from someone outside of your field but whose intellect challenges you: a scientist, musician, poet, or other business owner.

The only caveat is that you must talk about your ideas with people whose opinions you respect. Discussing ideas with anyone and everyone isn’t helpful to your goals.

[ How to Get Better Feedback When You Want to Improve ]

4. Change your routine.

If you’re getting the same results while going through the motions day after day, it’s time to shake things up.

  • Start your day at a different time or go to bed earlier.
  • Switch your business schedule with your studio schedule.
  • Vow not to engage with social media until the end of the day.
  • Take your walk in the evening instead of the morning.

Helen Frankenthaler’s breakthrough came after a trip to Nova Scotia, where she had painted numerous watercolors of the rocky seascape. Upon returning to New York, she spread her canvas on the floor and applied paint diluted with turpentine.

Mountains and Sea (1952) was the result and the rest is part of our art history.

Mixed media wall piece by Marilyn Joyce
©Marilyn Joyce, On an Earth Colored Thread. Tea-stained papers, sumi ink, ink, thread, beeswax, 16.5 x 10.5 inches.

5. Pay attention.

Wherever you are, be present to all that is around you and the people who are near. Absorb your surroundings with all of your senses.

It might be during a walk, listening to an art talk or video, or viewing a first-class art exhibition. 

What do I see? What do I feel? What do I hear? What do I smell? 

What is the speaker say that inspires me?

What do the artworks say?

Picasso’s major breakthrough occurred when he encountered African art in the Palais du Trocadéro.

6. Change your environment. 

In your immediate vicinity, you can declutter. Or reorganize the furniture or your materials.

Move your desk or workstation so that you have a different view. 

Or just get out! Get out of the studio. Get out of your office. Get out of your house.

Go to a coffee shop, a coworking space, or a body of water. 

When furniture craftsman Evan Sturm came to one of my live events in Golden, Colorado from his home in Montana, he was stuck in part of his business. Like Faith Ringgold, the problem was shipping.

During his stay in Golden, Evan discovered that his hotel was less than one mile from the very shipping company he wanted to utilize to move his handcrafted furniture across the country. He set up an early morning meeting before our sessions and … Boom! Breakthrough!

Abstract painting by Lauren Rader
©Lauren Rader, Nature’s Heat. Acrylic on canvas, 12 x 12 inches.

Keep Working

To emphasize, you can't will a breakthrough to happen, but you can make adjustments that make it easier to spot or expedite a breakthrough. 

Breakthroughs happen as a result of doing the work and being present during the process. And you must be open to change. You must be willing to say Yes to something new and different.

Keep working and stay open so that you can make necessary adjustments when your breakthrough strikes.

This article was first published on September 1, 2016 and had been expanded and updated with original comments intact.

Share this post

Your mailing list is your #1 marketing asset.

A transcript with the 3 lists every artist should have + a 3-page assessment for understanding the health of your list. FREE with opt-in.

13 thoughts on “Work Differently to Facilitate a Breakthrough”

  1. I think breakthroughs can more easily come when we pave the way through working hard, in a meditative way, or lightening the pressure on ourselves in a “chipping away” sort of way. We all want our breakthrough right now, yes? That is a lot of pressure to put on ourselves and doesn’t present the right atmosphere for it to happen anyway.
    I find that if I chip away at things, one or two little items at a time, then it seems less overwhelming and gives me time to think about it as I go, and adjust. My life is overwhelming at the moment w/eldercare, job, etc. so I don’t see any other way forward anyway.

  2. Just a couple of breakthroughs happening when I realized I could make what I loved doing into a career and that people supported me in doing so! Also learned at Breakthrough last year that many, many artists had the same struggles that I did….and we celebrated together!

  3. I would love to put a link to my latest breakthrough on here now – but i feel like it would be spamming. so i will just explain it.

    i have been learning how to make websites so eventually i can use this technology as a new medium to make art.

    In order to become a master of something it apparently takes 10 000 hours of focussed attention – So I am doing 10 000 hours of website making in the form of 1 website a month about my art, sent out as an email newsletter (its a full time job)-

    So its a business, and these websites are structured and serve their purpose as vehicles to market my art. they are not ‘works of art’ , but each month i learn a little more about how to use the scripting languages to do what i want

    This month i have created my first attempt at a work of art (something that just exists to be beautiful, and not to make money from or serve a purpose). I have turned my art into animations for my favorite poem, with each line on a separate page with a different animation so you click through to read ….

    It may not be perfect, but i feel it is indeed a breakthrough on my long term goal –
    I’m excited

  4. I’ve noticed that when I’ve had what I would consider “breakthroughs,” two factors have invariably been present:

    1. I have been spending lots of hours in the studio doing my work.
    2. I’ve stepped back a little from the intense effort of achieving a particular goal and am allowing myself some time to play, improvise, experiment, think outside the box, etc.

    The times when I’m not striving for a “masterpiece” but simply striving…seem to be the ones that result in those wonderful, lightbulb-going-off-in-the-brain moments.

  5. I am going to call this stage a “pre-breakthrough” breakthrough….say that five times fast? In my work-life I spend a lot of time helping people clarify the steps to get their business off the ground, figure out the budgeting and the tactical steps that need to be taken and then come up with a game plan. My job is very “tactics” oriented and I sometimes struggle with the bigger picture grand strategy stuff. To do all this, I have to be objective about their business. Something I have not been able to be with my own work. Recently, however, as I’ve been working with another artist on a business venture, I’m beginning to see my own work and business in a new light. One that feels more objective and less mired. I catch myself trying to almost talk myself out of it from time to time but it’s getting easier to go with the flow and start to look at my company and my work as a serious business that has a future. I even wrote my first mission statement for my own business and I didn’t immediately discount it.

    Sorry to ramble but it’s an exciting thing to be able to think of my company and myself in a professional way for once.

  6. I was painting a mural on an eggshell base coat and I sanded it to make highlights after it had been airbrushed. I was surprised to find the exact stone texture I wanted came up because of the raised eggshell bumps. It became the one of the ways I do building stone now.

  7. Many years ago I was making ceramic objects about life in Wyoming, where I lived, and about the environment and my worries for the survival of wildlife. My most successful pieces sales-wise where large ceramic “cowboy boots” designed “for” the crazy people who were coming to the state for the previous energy boom. Unfortunately there was little market for them in Wyo, but they were selling well in Santa Fe and galleries in the east. BUT, they broke in shipping, and even shippers agreed there was no way to ship them for the price they sold for.
    Totally discouraged, I went for a walk out on the prairie, and thought despondently “I might as well be making art for wildlife, instead of about them”

  8. Makes me think about my husband and exercise – he expects a break through in a week – in shape, the work out is easier, etc. Poor guy – it’ll probably be 6 months of daily work to get there. (Is that long?)

  9. As a textile art of 40+ Years I have started changing my medium and found a new world of possibilities opening up. Perhaps I could continue on textiles with my explorations but moving onto paper and wood substrate has given me a dramatic shift in options and ways of working that surprise me at every turn!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top

Your Artist Mailing List: Rethinking + Assessing

Get a transcript of episode 182 of The Art Biz (Rethinking Mailing Lists for Artists) followed by a 3-page worksheet to evaluate the overall health and usage of the 3 types of artist lists.

Where can we send it? 

To ensure delivery, please triple check your email address.

You’ll also receive my regular news for your art business.

Privacy + Terms

You're invited!


  • More than 7 strategies for growing your list lists, and why 1 shines above all.
  • How to redirect your energy for better results.
  • How a gratitude practice can help you shift your mindset.

I’ll also give you a peek behind the scenes at our classes and community.

This event is coming up soon. Will you come?